I think it would be fair to say that we assume artists are happy sharing their work; be that a painting, a song, a play, a novel, or whatever tangible ‘product’ comes out of creative expression.
At a workshop for pianists and piano teachers recently, I was quite surprised to discover how many of my fellow pianists hated performing and how much of this had to do with the restrictions put on us by our classical training and it made me wonder whether this was unique to musicians with formal training or whether it was a ‘performance angst’ common to all artists.
Therefore, as part of the Brendan Lloyd & Me initiative, I would be interested to hear what others feel about ‘performing’ – so let me open the discussion with a few thoughts:
Those of us who learn to play a musical instrument in the UK often do so in accordance with the ABRSM curriculum, which is a pretty tough set of exams at 8 Grades. My own path is a fairly typical one: I started formal piano lessons aged seven and had achieved Grade 8 by the time I was sixteen. I was lucky too in that the local authority considered me good enough for a scholarship, which paid for my lessons for as long as I was in full time education. So I was quite good in relation to the rest of the general populous. As a result, I was regularly rolled out for school speech days, holiday events and care home visits not to mention the obligatory family round on Christmas day. One of my first jobs was playing for a ballet school where the students were put under the same rigorous exam pressure as their fellow musical artists – I felt their pain on a number of levels!
The problem was that I was only as good as the sheet of music in front of me, which also acted as a security blanket. As soon as that went, I crumbled mentally. It wasn’t that I couldn’t remember anything, more that I didn’t have the confidence to just go for it; it was a hang-up from training for those exams, you had to be note perfect or you failed. If someone asks me to play when there is a piano in the vicinity and I have unwisely let slip that I do play, I literally feel like sticking pins in my eyes. Having participated in the aforementioned workshop, I now know that I am not the only one who dreads going for broke without the music in front of me for fear of missing a trill or slipping a wrong bass note and dying on the spot!
While I was learning formally, any kind of improvisation was a secret activity. I had a great teacher, but improvisation was never something he really taught me to do, or even so much as encouraged. I think he thought I just did it given I had such a firm opinion on everything else! Putting words to music was a habit I had nurtured ever since I could hum, but if I wanted to make up a tune I would pick up a guitar and strum a few chords (as that was the limit of my guitar-playing!) to a melody I sang. Rarely did I do that at the piano, thinking that I should be coming up with something way more complicated than a melody and simple chords.
Once I started playing in bands, particularly some of the really bad ones, I realised that relatively, I had a modicum of talent. So when I bought my first digital piano, the instances of sitting down at the piano and improvising grew, as I was able to record my musings and build on them. And this is something I still do regularly.
Some of those musings are not that bad, but no-one on this planet has ever heard them or probably ever will! My arm literally has to be twisted before I’ll play for anyone without several glasses down me; even then, without any comforting sheet music, I clam up. However, having had no formal photography training, I’m quite happy to post what I feel are my better photographs online. I am no writer either, but that has never stopped me posting my ramblings for all and sundry to read!
Do other people feel like this? Do you feel that having had the formal training your performance will be judged more harshly than for those who have had less or do you believe Joe Public will view art or listen to music for what it is? Do you care? I would really like to hear your thoughts, so feel free to comment!